As I wrestle with my proposal for a Fulbright grant (yes, I am applying for a Fulbright-MTVU Fellowship), I’m feeling the need to return a bit to my roots. Over my career in college, I became more and more interested in South America and its contemporary music. This was reflected in my major (Ethnomusicology), my minor (Spanish), and the certificate program I completed (Caribbean and Latin American Studies). At some point during my studies, I realized that there is a great deal of really incredible ska music coming out of Argentina and Uruguay, and one of the greatest exponents of this movement is an Uruguayan band called La Vela Puerca. As such, while I consider working my Fulbright proposal to get me to Uruguay, it seems appropriate that I write a bit about a band there that I love and would ideally (may very soon?) be studying with.
I discovered La Vela Puerca completely by accident. I had been searching or clips by an Argentine progressive rock group from the 70s (I still haven’t heard anything of theirs…has anyone heard Contraluz?), and landed instead on songs from La Vela Puerca’s 2004 album A Contraluz. I fell in love instantly. The songs on A Contraluz range widely from pop to punk to ska to folk, but all are anthemic and catchy.
In every song by the Uruguayan outfit I’ve heard, the band members have done an impeccable job orchestrating fascinating and inventive melodies and harmonies. La Vela Puerca seems to work largely by a rule of pairs: two singers harmonize on every song, two horn players blend their arrangements behind the wall of electric sound that most tracks feature, and two guitarists trade duties with chords and lead lines. The resulting effect is a surprisingly sophisticated ska-punk sound that is much more sonically dense than one might expect, and every listen gives the listener a new melodic or harmonic line to follow through the songs. Add to this occasional touches of strings, pianos, and harmonica on the group’s more recent albums and La Vela Puerca is playing a style of music that retains the excitement and exuberance of punk while very much avoiding sounding immature or sophomoric.
La Vela Puerca formed in Montevideo in December 1995 after some loose jam sessions outside a bar. Lead singer Sebastián Teysera entered an early demo into a contest without his bandmates’ knowledge, and by the time the Concurso Generación 96 contest had named La Vela Puerca as finalists, the friends from Montevideo were a legitimate band. The contest prize led to eighty hours of prepaid studio time, giving the “banda nacional que descansa en un reggae, sueña insumisión y se enchufa en ska” a foundation for their debut album.
Since Deskarado’s release in 1998 and re-release as a self-titled debut the next year, La Vela Puerca have recorded and released four more studio albums and one live disc, 2009’s Normalmente Anormal. With each record, the band sounds more polished and tight. The soaring melodies of A Contraluz that first introduced me to the group are very much still present on their latest, 2011’s Piel y Hueso. The group’s discography boasts an impressive cast of producers, including Academy Award-Winning composer Gustavo Santoalalla and Uruguayan guitarist and composer Juan Campodónico, both of Argentine-Uruguayan Tango fusion band Bajofondo (They’ll get a separate entry here later).
On A Contraluz acoustic songs began appearing more often, most notably with the band’s chosen anthem, “Zafar”. The song’s name is a Buenos Aires-area slang term used by musicians to describe leaving the establishment, and the upstroke bounce of “Zafar” paints the listener a picture of the urban life Teysera is a part of, but doesn’t necessarily love. Many of the songs on A Contraluz in fact relate a similar sentiment, expressing simultaneous love and discomfort for the group’s situation as a successful rock group in the Montevideo-Buenos Aires metropolitan area. It’s not quite as though the band is conflicted about their place in society, but that they feel they are in two places at once.
This duality is almost the given theme of the group’s newest release, Piel y Hueso. Translated the title means “Skin and Bone”, a reference to both the lyrical content of the album and to its musical makeup. Piel y Hueso is a two-disc set, the first being a full electric album paired with a six-song acoustic EP on the second. This approach, similar in some ways to the American group Foo Fighters’ 2005 double-album In Your Honor, allows the group to focus on their down-tempo and acoustic songs without the stigma of having them categorized as ballads or filler tracks on an otherwise electric rock album. The first disc of Piel y Hueso is very much what is expected leaving off from the upbeat rock and ska of A Contraluz and 2007’s El Impulso, albeit with the horn section mixed a bit less sharp in the rockier songs. The second disc is an entirely different story, with songs such as “Sólo un Paredón” and “Hoy” developing into sweeping orchestral arrangements featuring choruses. The album doesn’t feel terribly cohesive as a whole, and is clearly not an even split, as the first disc features twice as many tracks as the second. Within each segment of the album, however, the pieces fit together seamlessly, one of the group’s trademark inventive melodic hooks trailing off into the next.
La Vela Puerca is still very much a live band, and is actually currently gearing up for two big release shows for Piel y Hueso, one each in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. These release concerts will kick off a tour that immediately moves to Europe to tour with German group Die Ärzte. Information about the tour, as well as complete liner notes and lyrics for each of La Vela Puerca’s albums can be found at velapuerca.com. The band also has a Twitter account, @LaVelaPuerca_. In any case, the undeniably talented musicians and songwriters of La Vela Puerca are continuing to write, record, and perform, as well as expanding the scope of their stylistic influence. Many of La Vela Puerca’s songs, especially from A Contraluz, strike me as contagious and instantly brighten my mood. Nobody is listening to La Vela Puerca right now, but the Uruguayan band’s well-written melodies and appealing mix of pop, punk, and ska make them a band that impels the listener to move and dance, and always leaves me smiling.